Iranian Christian Journalist Discusses Government Campaign to Target Protestants
(23 December 2011) As Christmas approaches this year, it appears that authorities are again ramping up their monitoring and harassment of Protestant Christians and house-churches. According to the Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), a news service dedicated to covering Christian issues, in recent weeks the “number of Christians in Tehran and six other cities have been ordered to state security centers, interrogated at length, been allowed home with the warning that they will be recalled and that they better obey the order.”
In the weeks leading up to the 2010 Christmas holiday, authorities arrested over 100 Protestant Christians and Christian converts in Tehran and other cities across Iran. Many of these people were active in house-churches, and authorities eventually released most of them.
To better understand the plight of Christian prisoner of conscience in Iran, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) sat down for an interview with the director and editor of FCNN.
ICHRI: Why don’t you introduce our readers to FCNN and your work.
FCNN: About five years ago a group of individuals interested in journalism who had worked inside Iran recognized the need for the Farsi Christian News Network and agreed establish this news organization. This effort started as an online blog and gradually expanded.
FCNN strives to report in a professional manner. We have two missions. One is to accurately inform Christians in Iran about the news and events pertaining to them. And the other is to allow the world to hear the voices of Iranian Christians.
Now, FCNN has become an official source for many international institutions and churches that want to know more about the plight of Christians in Iran. For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) uses us as one of their sources.
ICHRI: What are some of the important cases of Christian prisoners of conscience, currently in detention, that we should know about?
FCNN: We can talk about the cases in which the families have agreed to go public. Of the cases I can talk about publicly there is Noorollah Qabitizade who is in prison in Ahvaz for over a year. He was detained during the wave of arrest during Christmas last year, on 24 December 2010 on Christmas Eve, and has yet to be released. There is Farshid Fathi who is in Evin prison in Tehran. He was arrested on 26 September 2010. And there is Youcef Nadarkhani, who is detained in Lakan prison in Gilan [province] for leaving Islam. His case you know about I believe.
And when it comes to Farshid Fathi, he was arrested under the allegations of “acting against national security,” and “contact with anti-regime groups outside the country.”
But in both these cases, we know from inside sources that within prison and during interrogations the subject that authorities are concerned with is their Christianity. For example, authorities wanted Qabitizade to give up Christianity and announce he was a Muslim. But he refused to do this and now he hasn’t had access to a bible for over a year.
They make these cases political but we know that for both men they have said if you return to Islam we’ll free you.
Farshid was a very active Christian in Tehran. He was a convert that had a lot of contact with other young people and students. Basically he was socially active. It is ironic because the Judiciary ordered his release … but at the last minute the Prosecutor’s office based in the prison said he can’t go and they continued to detain him.
Both of these men are still in prison but they have never had official charges or a trial.
ICHRI: Why have so many Christians been accused of political crimes?
FCNN: It’s hard for the government of the Islamic Republic to [publicly] oppose a spiritual movement, but it is easy for the Islamic Republic to [publicly] oppose a political movement.
We Iranian Christians have never seen ourselves as a political opposition but the government was to characterize us as political because they want to tie us to groups outside the country and paint us as supporters of foreigners. They use this tactic to repress us.
What is actually said at house-churches that the government is so against? Nothing political is said in house-churches.
Iranian Christians don’t say anything that the government can really object to, expect that in their services they talk about God and worship God. But if you imprison or kill someone because of they talk about God, it’s fundamentally hypocritical [for a religious government]. So they need to say we are political and support foreigners and turn this into a political issue.
Before this was a public issue in Iran, if they arrested a Muslim that had become a Christian, they would normally arrest them for the crime of apostasy. For example, Pastor Hossein Soodmand or Pastor Mehdi Debaj … were both taken to prison and court for the crime of apostasy under Sharia law. But when this became a public issue, they realized they could arrest hundreds of people for the crime of apostasy, but that would cause a stir domestically and internationally. So now they arrest and charge [Christians] with “acting against national security” and “contact with anti-regime groups. But during the actual interrogations, the interrogators most focus on the issue of apostasy and leaving Islam.